A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Sadie Thompson (Raoul Walsh, 1928)

It's sad that most people know Gloria Swanson only as the gorgon Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder, 1957). Or that Swanson's deft parody of silent movie acting in that film constitutes many people's impression of what it was like. The survival of Sadie Thompson, even though it's missing its last reel, which the restorers piece out with old stills and title cards, shows what a formidable force Swanson could be on screen, generating enough heat that it's surprising she didn't ignite the nitrate film stock. The story is the familiar one of the San Francisco prostitute who comes to Pago Pago, where she clashes with a bluenose reformer who threatens to return her to San Francisco and the hands of the police. The reformer is Alfred Davidson (Lionel Barrymore in full ham), who was a clergyman in Somerset Maugham's short story, "Miss Thompson," and the play, Rain, that was based on it, but becomes a layman here to please the Hays Office. Fortunately, Sadie has the support of a sturdy young Marine sergeant, Timothy O'Hara, played by director Raoul Walsh, who before turning director full-time had been an actor in the early days of silents; he played John Wilkes Booth in The Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, 1915). This brief return to acting was a one-shot: Walsh was planning to direct himself again in In Old Arizona (Irving Cummings, 1928), but lost his right eye in a freak auto accident while on location preparing to shoot the film; Warner Baxter took over the role and won an Oscar for it. Swanson was nominated for an Oscar for Sadie Thompson, as was cinematographer George Barnes, whose nomination included his work on two other films: The Devil Dancer (Fred Niblo, 1927) and The Magic Flame (Henry King, 1927). In fact, Barnes did only a week's worth of filming on Sadie Thompson before Samuel Goldwyn insisted he fulfill a contractual obligation to him; he was replaced by Robert Kurrle and Oliver T. Marsh.

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